When little Nelson was born I started keeping a little log book of his eating, sleeping, play time and diapers. I decided this week to start recording how much time he was getting in French and English as well. What I found was pleasantly surprising, but also got me concerned about something that I entirely did not expect– is Nelson hearing enough English?
I have been speaking to Nelson in French for about four or five of his waking hours. This is a huge triumph for me, I would not have expected that I could do that! But it creates the conundrum.
Now, four or five hours may not sound like much and at first I didn’t think much of it, then I started recording his English exposure, which came to two or three hours a day. The problem is that little Nelson, like all newborns, is very sleepy. He’s like a sloth. He sleeps about sixteen hours a day. That leaves just eight waking hours. One of those hours I nurse him while reading quietly to myself, because I want to keep his days and nights straight, and I do that by keeping nights dark, quiet, and boring. So he gets seven total hours of language exposure. And French is in the lead.
But still, why do I care? This is a win, right? Everything I have read indicates that bilingual children show a lot of cognitive gains and no cognitive deficits provided that they have a strong first language to anchor their language skill. Basically, your language potential is largely a function of your strongest childhood language. In these early years the mind and the physical brain are structuring themselves around language. From what I can tell, it isn’t entirely well understood, but it is imperative that children develop a good sense of the different parts of speech, the way language is used, how grammar works, and all of those things about language that all proficient language speakers innately understand. A big key to this is exposure to diverse speech with consistent adherence to rules. So when Mommy struggles with matching adjectives and nouns in gender, and can’t manage to remember the gender of nouns anyway, that means he may well be missing an important piece of the puzzle that is language. And when Mommy incorrectly favors more basic tenses that I am more comfortable with, Nelson may again be missing those pieces. Now, he can find these pieces later, but his brain has to have the skill to understand the use of those pieces when he gets them.
In the end I don’t really care if his French is perfect. I know whatever I give him will be so much more than what I started with. But my baby should be capable of brilliant rhetoric in at least one language, right?
The ending to this whole conundrum is somewhat anti-climatic. I reflected on the fact that our schedule now revolves around nursing and cuddling in the apartment, with a short trip out at some point in the day which he usually sleeps through. Daddy comes home at night and he gets a little English, and on the weekends he gets more. But this schedule won’t last, and soon I am going to have to get very creative and fight to keep his French exposure high. And it is very early in the life of his language development. He is learning about things like cadence, and where words start and end, and that I think he can get just fine with my French and my English. And the final deciding vote not to dial back the French? I think my French can use the practice right now!